Ann Beattie's Latest, 'A Wonderful Stroke of Luck' Leaves This Reader Feeling Hapless
Disaffected prep school youth, seemingly from another era, stumble through the immediate wake of a post-9/11 America in Ann Beattie's A Wonderful Stroke of Luck.
A Wonderful Stroke of Luck
Consider the plight of an author whose continuing style and time may have long since faded. They still produce work, but it varies in quality. They work within a safe environment where the plaudits received for their early work are not tarnished or diminished by the changing times or different formats in which they choose to work. Within this hermetically sealed bubble in which they write their narratives about the alienated and disaffected, the author whose time has passed pushes even more forcefully to elevate their trademark styles. They keep writing alienated, cold, detached narratives that worked so forcefully to reflect the stranded souls of a post-Vietnam generation 45 years ago, only to see their powerful ability to capture that voice has become tedious today.
Ann Beattie's 21st book, A Wonderful Stroke of Luck, might be too smart for its own good. Her lead character, Ben, is a student at a fictional New England Bailey Academy. The time setting is the early 21st century, that period of numbness in the atmosphere after the 9/11 attacks. The East Coast boarding school is a time-honored (and usually time-worn) cocoon where self-satisfied smug brilliance is fostered in a world like a hermetically-sealed biodome. Much like Susan Choi's similarly mixed novel, Trust Exercise (Henry Holt and Co., 2019), Beattie imposes the presence of a charismatic teacher on Ben and the other people in this narrative. However, unlike Choi's story, which attempted a lot but didn't follow through, Beattie's purpose seems to be more general. Ben has lost his father and he is trying to find both focus and purpose in a life that does not make much sense to him. A stepmother proves resistant, a neighbor is there but not there, and another woman's presence seems to be more destructive than helpful.
We see early on that the charismatic teacher, Peter LaVerdere, is only going to be a problem, but he's matched by his students. Laverdere's favorite text is Crime and Punishment, and star pupil Aqua cites Michael Herr's Dispatches as her go-to text. Beattie seems to be having fun in these early stages, citing Aqua as "…human Velcro, her words the tiny loops she hoped would attach her to whomever she cornered." Another character, LouLou, had "…written three novels -- she maintained that anything over a hundred pages was a novel." This particular passage seems telling regarding both the collection of characters here and Beattie's apparent inability to sustain realistic interest through the course of A Wonderful Stroke of Luck. She knows we can meander through some of her short stories and trust that she'll bring us to a crescendo, but novels are a wholly different landscape, and she doesn't earn our trust as early on in the story as she should.
Pierre Laverdere is a teacher of film, a teacher of drama, somebody who leads the honor society at Bailey Academy by bestowing upon his students offerings they should know:
Five Easy Pieces, Sophie's Choice, Waiting for Godot. Beattie knowingly sprinkles these references into the curriculum of her fictional New Hampshire boarding school and notes that:
"Being sick of Laverdere was like being sick of the hands of a clock. Of course they studied him to see what his mood was, while trying to appear disinterested…they were simply too young to be disinterested; they couldn't possibly think of personal advantage when they'd really accomplished nothing."
We learn that Laverdere's "Holy Trinity" is Dostoyevsky, Richard Feynman, and Robert Altman, another hint at where we might be going. 9/11 happens, but Laverdere is nowhere to be found. Beattie writes: "Now everything in the world was going to be rethought…" The students graduate the following year, and Barbara Ehrenreich is their commencement speaker. Years pass and Ben finds himself in New York City with his sister. "Whatever old people said was news brought from a vanished land," Beattie writes. She lands us in the middle of the ennui that so smothered our world in the first half-decade after 9/11. While it's forcefully and effectively evoked, the reader gets the sense Beattie would have been more effective had she written a memoir, or a series of essays. Consider this passage, which comes off more like the opening of a long-form essay about writing than novel writing itself:
"Metaphor. It was insidious. You had to ignore that way of thinking… your dreams contained straw men rather than real omens… your neurotic fears lacked legitimacy… you realized symbolic stories were inert… you had no special abilities… no second senses…"
The difficult part of a story like this is that even a great short story writer like Ann Beattie cannot effectively balance maintaining and sustaining our interest in what's happening with a character who isn't going anywhere. Beattie writes: "Time passed. He had his shoes resoled… Images of people jumping from the Twin Towers sometimes flashed through his mind." In the wake of that disaster, people of Ben's generation flock to Portland, Maine and New York's Hudson Valley. What was once seen as uncool becomes gentrified. It's difficult to embrace a character like Ben when "[T]he effort he was putting into talking exhausted him." Long conversations and references to Tom McGuane, Proust, and WNYC public radio talk shows remind us that these people were insulated before 9/11 and only held tighter to this desperate intellectualism in the years that followed.
There are moments in A Wonderful Stroke of Luck that resonate, though the reader needs to wade through many pages of ponderous navel-gazing and blank-eyed disaffected emptiness to get to them. Of LouLou, Beattie writes:
"She resembled the young Susan Sontag, as photographed by Thomas Victor. Sontag had been one of the first people to write an eminently sensible thing after 9/11, asking people to think seriously whether or not there might be reasons for our enemies to hate us."
It's the lost potential in passages such as this where the patient reader might feel frustrated. There's a reason Beattie set this story in the 9/11 era, but she fails the reader (and her narrative) by not following through on such observations. 9/11 did create numbness, and it ushered in a cold era of detachment in the arts, where irony was lost, and political commentary swept away in favor of commentary. Beattie assuredly and intelligently drops an endless supply of cultural references throughout this novel, but she doesn't back them up with anything within the story itself.
The reader familiar with novels about privileged teens at exclusive private prep schools -- like the aforementioned Trust Exercise, or teacher films like Robert Mulligan's Up the Down Staircase (1967) and Peter Weir's Dead Poets Society (1989) -- will see very early where Beattie will be taking LaVerdere's character. By its conventional nature, the ending disappoints. Who was LaVerdere? What was his function in this story? Beattie tells us that LaVerdere had a sort of "Machiavellian maneuvering" in the lives of these young people, "[B]ut he wasn't the devil, just a sad approximation." Beattie introduces her two major themes -- life for a generation of young people in the numb cultural wasteland wake of 9/11 United States and the disastrous emotional effects of a charismatic teacher on the lives of said young people -- but she doesn't bother to effectively (or convincingly) build upon either of them.
In the end, the reader works through nearly 300 pages of a character study painfully bereft of dramatic tension. The cultural references are effective and knowing, but these seem to be young people from the '70s imposed onto the early 21 st century. Fore example, the only cultural reference Beattie makes to the music of the time is the Madison Square Garden Michael Jackson concert of September 2001. Otherwise, these young people are untouched by pop culture. Where are their cell phones? Why are they not Instant Messaging each other?
The blank stares of disaffected sadness worked well in such films as Bob Rafelson's Five Easy Pieces (1970), or anything from Antonioni and Bergman, but they're almost impossible to effectively pull off without distracting readers who deserve more. Not only do we not know anything more about Ben at the end of A Wonderful Stroke of Luck than we knew at the beginning, we don't really care. This is an intellectually rich book, but Beattie's clinical distance seems as much a reflection of her inability to fully capture this generation as it is a literary style. It reads like the result of scholarly research rather than primary experience. Emotional connections within or between characters are nowhere to be seen. Alas, if the writer seems uninterested in attempting a connection with the reader, then the effort expended to build an absorbing fictional world proves fruitless.